Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language Learning

Florentina Taylor, author of the recently published Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language Learningwrites here about the inspiration for her book.

Imagine for a moment a group of medics debating the best cure for a condition that a patient appears to be suffering from. They have ordered several tests and, based on the results, they are quite confident they can cure the condition with the medicines that, to the best of their knowledge, are considered to be the most effective at the time. How likely is it that they can recommend a successful treatment without including the patient in the discussion? Could there be something in the patient’s medical history they’re not aware of? Could the patient be allergic to some of the substances in the recommended pills? Is the patient taking other medicines that may affect the effectiveness of the intended treatment? Ultimately, does the patient understand the benefits of the proposed cure, and is he or she committed to swallowing three pills a day with plenty of water, before each main meal, in order for the treatment to be successful?

Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language LearningAs language educators dedicated to bringing out the best in our students, we spend huge amounts of time thinking, reading and writing about the best teaching methods, the best materials, the best tests, the best motivational techniques. We debate, we argue, we question and we persist in the obstinate belief that one day we will succeed in engaging the disengaged, enabling the not-yet-able and retaining the so-far-engaged-and-able. Yet, we sometimes resemble a group of medics trying to cure real or imaginary conditions without actually consulting the patient.

In language education, such a condition can take many forms. In English-speaking countries, there is a generalised perception that nobody wants to learn foreign languages because ‘everybody speaks English nowadays’, although there is evidence that English is losing ground as the language of international communication and, clearly, not everybody speaks English. While more and more worrying statistics show how low interest in languages leads to university departments closing down and how businesses are losing out on the global market due to poor language skills, we language educators know that instrumental, means-to-an-end reasons to study languages are less important than intrinsic, personally fulfilling drives. After all, how many of us become interested in languages and are prepared to spend a significant amount of time and effort working on our skills for fear a language department or an international business might close down otherwise?

In non-English speaking countries, where foreign language study is often compulsory at school, or in English-speaking contexts that make foreign language study compulsory, we may find different symptoms of – I would argue – a very similar ‘condition’. Whether or not to study a language may not be an option for many such students, but there is always the option whether or not to engage with the language classes one has to attend. There’s also the option whether to really engage, to sort-of engage or to just put in as little effort as necessary to give the impression that you are engaged so you are left alone to see to your own personally relevant agenda. In such an environment, the teacher is often fighting a losing battle, as few signs may be giving away the fact that many students are not actually as interested in the language lesson as they appear to be and they are not working as hard as they would have us believe.

Does it matter? Well, research shows that it does. The recently published Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language Learning depicts language learners as caught between contradictory expectations (e.g., teacher versus peers) resulting in complex identity negotiations that enable them to please both the teacher, ’who gives the marks’, and the peers, who would otherwise punish nonconformity with ostracism. The learners’ own expectations and wishes are often muted in an effort to please (or, for that matter, irritate) other people. And, if formal achievement measures are anything to go by, there is evidence that students who feel they need to undertake such strategic negotiation and display of identity have lower foreign language scores than those who do not. Students who feel appreciated as real persons by the language teacher, who do not feel the need to pretend they are what they are not, appear to obtain the highest language scores. Moreover, they feel respected and, in turn, respect their teacher, they are prepared to work hard in and out of class, they feel they are real stakeholders in their own education.

Based on the data discussed in this book, several ways in which teachers can show they value their students as ‘real persons’ are:

  • helping them understand how what is happening today in the classroom will one day be of use to them in real life;
  • being understanding and caring when students struggle with a particularly difficult concept;
  • providing supporting and informative feedback that allows students to learn and make progress;
  • not punishing or ridiculing mistakes (e.g., pronunciation, grammar);
  • allowing for a degree of student initiative and autonomy in organising group activities and projects;
  • expecting that their students achieve their best and helping them to do so;
  • accepting that students may sometimes disagree with the teacher, which is perfectly normal in any social group;
  • believing in students’ potential and intrinsic value as human beings;
  • ultimately, respecting them as we would (should?) any other person.

Self and Identity in Adolescent Foreign Language Learning presents numerous direct quotations from student interviews, as well as statistical analyses to support these suggestions, arguing that caring for students as individuals does have a number of benefits, from better classroom dynamics to better achievement. The book proposes a new model of identity based on educational psychology concepts and theories applied to foreign language learning. The project reported in this book tested the model with 1,045 adolescents learning English as a foreign language in Romania. The model has also been tested, with very similar results, with learners of English as a foreign language and Mathematics in four other European countries. Although in a different context and using a different theoretical framework, similar insights were also obtained when researching the perceived relevance of Modern Foreign Languages in England.

The consistent, albeit circular, message that many studies conducted in Europe and elsewhere seem to give is that low foreign language uptake and lack of interest in language classes are mainly due to acute student demotivation. My own work with adolescents learning languages in Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain and the UK has shown that young learners are actually very motivated and interested in languages, that they understand the value of knowing other languages and are willing to invest time and effort in becoming (more) able to do so. But, in all these different contexts, many students appear to feel left out of their own education and, if they are indeed suffering from a condition that needs addressing urgently, I believe it is the need to feel they matter as individuals. Education is meant to inspire future generations to be better than us and do greater things than we have. But inspiration, like education, is not something that we can do to our students. Truly inspiring and educating our students is not possible without giving them a very clear message through our words, attitudes and actions: you matter.

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